Cultural Literacy Critical Essays

E. D. Hirsch Jr.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

An anecdote, subsequently mentioned frequently by reviewers, exemplifies the topic that Hirsch addresses. A secondary school pupil, informed that Latin is a dead language, reacted disbelievingly: “What do they speak in Latin America?” This vignette reinforces a widely shared observation that American schools are largely unsuccessful in instilling in students the information and skills required to be effective in the contemporary world. Hirsch contends that deficiencies in skill and information (cultural literacy) are inseparable; skill (reading) is dependent upon having information, and not merely that pertaining to the skill itself. Briefly, reading comprehension is a product, in part, of cultural literacy: possession of the knowledge needed to thrive in the modern world.

By the late 1960’s, young Americans were weak in both areas, and national scores for successive classes of high schools continued to decline. How did this occur? Hirsch finds the root of the problem in the educational theories of France’s Jean-Jacques Rousseau and America’s John Dewey. Rousseau proposed that children should be allowed to develop and learn naturally, unrestrained by adult preferences, or nearly so. Dewey, the most influential figure in American education, adapted Rousseau’s ideas in promoting progressive education, a curriculum that assumed content (information) to be distinctly secondary to skill. Moreover, skill, which could be acquired in a few direct experiences, was considered to be readily transferable from one context to another. Thus, the hallmark of nineteenth century education, the memorization of information, including poetry and prose, sharply declined in American schools. Memorization was replaced by educational formalism as the dominant instructional method.

From an examination of research on reading and memory, Hirsch concludes that the use of prototypes or schemata are crucial to comprehension and retention of what is read. He finds supporting data in research from the fields of cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence. Scholarly findings thus confirm what some say common sense suggests: that young people enjoy memorization, whether it deals with baseball statistics, popular music, or history. Reading and memorization are particularly important in the first years of school. Both processes...

(The entire section is 954 words.)